The oft-misrepresented “working class white” and the much mythologized “hillbilly”—different groups linked culturally due to their mutual associations with economically-insecure whiteness—have taken hard hits of late. This new flurry of blows arrived during last November’s alleged “Rust Belt Rebellion” that led to the election of Donald Trump, as well as J. D. Vance’s diagnosis of culture and pathology—yes, the same culture and pathology that liberals rightly eschew when applied to poor communities of color—as an explanatory force for Appalachian poverty.
In popular culture, Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis skirts historical and sociological explanations for the drug-addledness and material destitution of his home region in favor of a mono-causal “bad behavior” conclusion that borders on Social Darwinism and 19th-century civilization theory. Raised by his more stable and loving grandparents within a generally shiftless and drug-addicted community, Vance paints a portrait of a “hillbilly” culture in decline, as though there was ever a time in which the metropolitan gaze didn’t demonize Appalachia, or blame its residents for their own social ills. The “hillbilly” moniker itself dates to at least the Gilded Age, and historians, including Nancy Isenberg’s recent White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, have long addressed class and the cultural construction of poor whites as biological “others.” Through his suggestion that poverty is self-induced, and that anyone can transcend unproductive culture if only he works hard enough, Vance has become the Ben Carson of more affluent white Americans who are once again eager to kick downward toward the most oppressed people within their racial “in group.” Vance is from Appalachia, so, just as Carson’s blackness gives instant credibility to his racist ideas, Vance’s classism sanctions classism everywhere.
On the electoral front, meanwhile, liberal elites have perpetuated the idea that Trump’s presidential victory owes primarily to support among “working class whites.” Though espoused in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Atlantic, this narrative is unsupported by data. Trump’s base was in fact a relatively privileged one of older, white, and more affluent voters; over half of his voters hailed from households that earned over $75,000 a year; and three-quarters of his voters earned more than the national median income. Although Trump made critical gains (or, more accurately, Hillary Clinton suffered critical losses) in discrete areas where he offered a sort of faux populism to workers who, for good reason, came to possess little faith in neoliberalism and free trade globalism, his base was in fact wealthier than Clinton’s—a reactionary, faux “forgotten” petite bourgeoisie primarily concerned with “social issues” (read: white identity). The myth of Trump’s white working class base reinforces existing class and regional prejudices among middle class liberals. Worse yet, the “irredeemably racist” narrative prevents liberals from asking difficult but critical questions about Democratic Party cultural elitism, data-driven electoral strategy, and globalist-corporate economic philosophy. Indeed, most white workers, like most workers of color simply don’t vote—whether out of systematic suppression or general indifference to two parties they perceive as not representing their interests.
Even the neocons at the National Review—whose executive editor blurbed Vance’s book—have taken their turn on the “redneck” punching bag. Although traditionally reluctant defenders of “redneck” culture in a sort of conservative solidarity with NASCAR nationalism, the publication has recently joined in the “othering” by attacking rural and working class white voters for opening the door for Trump.
Enter Keri Leigh Merritt’s new book, Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, which is sure to prove a relevant and essential work on non-propertied non-slaveholding people in the Old South—the much-maligned “eye gougers” of nineteenth century America. Merritt’s work speaks to many interesting and important things (too many to name here), including not only one of the key questions of studies of race and class in U.S. history, but one that always seems especially crucial in today’s politics of Trump and a cultural conversation forwarded by the Rust Belt-blaming, Appalachia-exoticizing, Vance-praising New Yorker crowd: To what extent does white supremacy benefit common white folks?
From slaveholding to exploiting uncompensated workers through convict leasing to shrewdly using racism and xenophobia as wedges to divide working folks both organizationally and politically, the benefits to white elites and their progeny have always been obvious and immense. The white middle classes, too, have benefited from white supremacy both materially—from slave hiring and racialized mobility, to whites-only space and resources and financial access, to whites-only or white preference government benefits—as well as psychologically. Simply, slavery and its countless discriminatory legacies—segregation, Jim Crow laws, lynching, redlining, white flight, fraud, rape, murder, and the systematic exclusion of African Americans from both government largesse and the accumulation of financial (and thus intergenerational) wealth during periods of relative inter-class mobility and economic growth—have resulted in a multitude of systemic disparities ranging from wages and employment to health care and educational opportunity. They have also made white America incredibly wealthy. The economic damages alone from slavery translate to in the tens of trillions of today’s dollars, and the racial wealth gap remains staggeringly wide.
So the material benefit toward many white Americans has always been conspicuous enough. But what of poor, employment-insecure, and wage-earning white people? As is noted in the vast historiographies of Marxism, whiteness studies, and the combination of both, the concept of “privilege” as it applies to working class and poor whites is much trickier.
That question as it applies to the Old South has found its reply. Indeed, Merritt’s antebellum Deep South is one of extreme concentrations of wealth and highly stratified socioeconomic divisions. For Merritt’s poor (landless, slaveless, mostly propertyless) whites, relying on whiteness as a means of class mobility was normally out of the question, and the same elite and bourgeois institutions that sustained slavery also went a long way in oppressing poor whites: slavery as a driver of low wages and unemployment; an almost total lack of public schools and access to credit; slave patrols and behavioral laws and community surveillance as forms of social control and retributive justice (against poor whites, too); and the slaveholders’ monopolization of land, resources, credit, and political power. Although their melanin content precluded the legal enslavement of poor whites, black slavery nevertheless “removed from many the privileges of whiteness,” Merritt insists. It wasn’t simply the case that poor whites experienced white privilege differently than more affluent whites. Black slavery was actively bad for them.
The preeminence of property ownership, and slaveholding in particular, in determining southern social status was widely acknowledged at the time by those outside the region. Northern abolitionists sensed this poor white disaffection, and attempted to target their anger against slavery. The southern slaveocracy, meanwhile, had a vested interest in camouflaging the huge concentration of disgruntled white poor in their midst, whose numbers of “truly, cyclically poor” Merritt approximates as roughly one-third of the Old South’s white population. Slaveholders had long maintained that the oppression of black southern labor was relative to that of white Northern wage earners. Presenting a “mud-sill” view of society in which all whites benefited from the existence of black slavery, planters acknowledging such mass and extreme white poverty would have offered a southern parallel to what George Fitzhugh termed the “white slave trade” in the industrializing North.
And as a result many poor whites formed something of a class consciousness, although the South’s rurality (as opposed to a factory setting) stymied their solidarity and labor power. Although planters had ginned up fears of an impending “race war,” in which former slaves would set to massacre poor whites in the event that slavery was destroyed, in order to gain cross-class consensus around secession, many poor whites deeply resented the planter class. These pauperized dissenters contributed mightily to Confederate defeat through either active resistance or passive noncompliance, creating a “three-front battleground” during the Civil War in which Confederates were forced to simultaneously fight United States armies, unruly slaves, and disaffected poor whites. Confederate defeat proved a boon for the South’s poor whites. The privileges of whiteness in fact became more pronounced after the Civil War, Merritt argues, as white workers were finally able to compete for free labor wages and gain access to land through the Homestead Acts. Likewise, the southern legal system increasingly targeted African Americans (rather than poor whites) in order to sustain or replicate the plantation system.
Merritt’s is a well-researched, deftly written, and genuinely consequential study. Like Victoria Bynum’s The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War, Merritt’s analysis upends the myth of white southern unity over slavery and the myth of a sort of monolithic white privilege, in addition to exploding some of the basic premises of the Lost Cause. It challenges W. J. Cash and others who maintain that a racist “proto-Dorian bond” or a form of herrenvolkism united all southern whites behind slavery. This alone is a commendable feat. But Masterless Men also speaks to today’s politics in ways that are critical to propagating socialist concepts and building progressive alliances going forward.
I teach a great deal about racial privilege, which is both popular and socially critical at an Historically Black University. If the main problem in teaching race to white students tends to be a total obliviousness to the Black experience and an insistence that they, like society, are in fact “color-blind,” then the main problem in teaching race to students of color tends to be their belief that white supremacy is inevitable, eternal, foreordained, or even, as black students sometimes wonder, encoded into white peoples’ DNA. So I attempt to teach white privilege in multidimensional way, and with the original class function of whiteness (or racialization in general) intact. In other words, I try to impress upon my students that white privilege is 1) not transhistorical; 2) constitutive of a particularly contingent and insidious form of hegemony (white supremacy); and 3) not applied equally across the white class spectrum. In short, I aim to relate that the relative advantages associated with having white skin are far greater and far easier to see in some historical contexts than in others, and that privilege in all its forms is an original outgrowth of elite attempts to create and maintain power.
So when it comes to contextualizing race and class historically, it’s less a matter of race over class or class over race, but, quite literally, of one constructing the other. Like David Roediger in his new also excellent work on class, race, and Marxism, I don’t feel the need to rank these things, nor am I in any way qualified to do so. That’s why the notion of “intersectionality” isn’t a very historically specific (and some might say useful) term. Intersectionality proves a limited analytical framework in that it tends to treat class as equivalent to other forms of subjugation, which it may well be (or not be) in terms of one’s lived experience. But this representation of co-linear, transhistorical “intersecting” oppressions proves ahistorical when measured against the past—a past in which patriarchy and white supremacy arise from and are shaped by social relations centered on modes of production. For instance, though Patrick Grzanka’s recent definition of “intersectionality” as “how dimensions of inequality co-construct one another” speaks to a certain mutuality, it too falls short of identifying class as a foundation that gives rise to other forms of oppression. In other words, race and class don’t merely “intersect” in historical terms; one created the other.
The problem with the liberal discourse on privilege is that it tends to ignore the historical and material reasons that created and sustain it, and thus elides the only way to eradicate it. Telling a working class white person to “check their privilege” is normally doomed to futility because, although there are certainly gradations of privilege within the working class that benefit white workers over workers of color, as Merritt’s book demonstrates with regard to the 19th century, the same forces of oppression working against people of color are sometimes working against the white working class too. To be sure, these two groups—white workers and workers of color—have far more in common than not, and neither are especially privileged compared to actual rich people.
So how does this all speak to our contemporary politics, particularly within a problematic, social media-driven “call out” culture? It’s always—always—the prerogative of the antiracist to denounce racist ideas, and that denouncement is low-hanging fruit if those ideas are being expressing in direct, crude, and immediately hurtful ways: slurs, hateful symbols, and standard racial stereotypes. Yet the addressing and analyzing of obvious, everyday, face-to-face racism should be less through performative “call outs” and more through supporting political projects based on antiracism and racial solidarity with an eye on the ways in which white supremacy is, today and historically, linked inextricably to questions of capital, wealth inequality, and economic power. As Merritt’s book should remind, that type of low risk, quick return approach to confronting racism cannot serve as a replacement for scrutinizing the white elites and their institutions who, while their white supremacy might not be as “in your face” as the “N word” or the Confederate flag, nevertheless express white supremacy through honest-to-goodness power. Politicians and policymakers, CEOs, real estate developers, bankers, media elites, company boards, business contractors, school or business administrators, and city planners create and interpret policy, and they benefit from white supremacy in far more lucrative ways.
And this is where the Left should differ from the Tim Wises of the world, both morally and strategically: The best approach to antiracism is not to exert the bulk of one’s energy lambasting an exploited white worker who, for whatever reason, voted for Trump. Yes, his racial views might be abhorrent, but addressing them devoid of historical context, or devoid of a discussion of the degree to which other, more “respectable” (and wealthier) white people benefit from white supremacy to far greater degrees is a futile endeavor. And yes, denouncing white supremacy everywhere is crucial—no exceptions whatsoever. But the reality is that the liberal phenomenon Daniel Denvir has recently described as “redneck punching” primarily serves to make white liberals feel good about themselves while obscuring the ways in which they’re in fact complicit in far more beneficial forms of white supremacy. Ultimately, that “redneck” is not the one shaping racist social policy regarding anything from incarceration to gentrification to social disinvestment. Indeed, it’s far more useful to direct one’s anger toward folks, including some of the best liberals around, who express racism through power, even if that racism tends to be delivered with a softer message and a smile. Uniting oppressed workers across racial lines against the prime beneficiaries of white supremacy ultimately creates the capacity for a much broader and more progressive politics, as well as a fuller dissemination of social democratic ideas. Let’s continue to punch upward.